Posted: 12:00 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013
By Tom Ryle
The Dallas Cowboys are licking the wounds from the almost indescribable ("moral victory" has been thoroughly discredited) 51-48 loss to the Denver Broncos. But despite their 2-3 record they are still tied for the lead in the NFC East with the Philadelphia Eagles. Next up is division rival and the most politically incorrect team in sports, the Washington Redskins, who are coming off a bye week after posting their first win of the season in week 4.
With the Cowboys fighting to stay at least tied for the division lead (the Eagles play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are not exactly striking terror in opponents' hearts this season) and the Indigenous American Peoples looking to climb into contention in Football's Feeblest Division, there is a bit riding on this game. Can the Cowboys bring some of the offensive fire they showed against Denver? Will the defense actually force the first punt in two weeks? Once again, are we going to see Dallas master the fine art of playing down to the level of the opposition?
I am no fortune teller and I don't think anyone is going to be satisfied with "Heck if I know" for an answer. So I have turned to my favorite source of quantitative measurements, Pro Football Focus, to see how the teams have graded out so far this season.
And promptly run into a small glitch. I am more interested in the overall performance of players and teams than I am in the most recent game but Washington has already had its bye week. That means any scores reflect only four games, rather than the five Dallas has played. Any time I think it is pertinent, I will add an "adjusted" grade for Washington, where I multiply their grades by 1.25 to give them a similar weight as for the Cowboys.
Robert Griffin III was one of the quarterback wunderkinds last season, along with fellow rookie Andrew Luck and second-year player Russell Wilson. But this year's version of Bob3 is not the same as the Redskins have apparently decided that running your most valuable player and getting him hit on a regular basis by other NFL players is not the best strategy. He is certainly not the frightening threat to run in the read-option, with only 62 yards rushing this season. He does seem to be making a transition to more of a pocket passer, and he has thrown for 1,202 yards, or almost exactly 300 yards per game.
One of the biggest issues for the Cowboys last week was the inability to get real pressure on Peyton Manning. Bob Sturm did his weekly report on Monte Kiffin's defense and he brought up the point that Manning is almost impossible to pressure at times because he makes his read and gets the ball out with almost inhuman speed. On one blitz by the Cowboys, here is the result:
Total time to throw this ball? A staggering 1.7 seconds. Again, I don't care how many you blitz, you aren't getting home in 1.7 seconds. Throw and catch. 26 yard gain and a demoralized defense.
However, this is not likely to be the case this week. And the Cowboys need to get some pressure this week. Look at these scores showing how pressure affects him.
|Pressure||Dropbacks||QB Rating||PFF Score|
Griffin is much less effective when he is pressured without a blitz. He is actually at his best passing when blitzers come, which probably is a chance for him to use his running instincts effectively. This also may indicate that he is still learning to read the defense, and the more players in coverage, the worse for him - and the better for the Cowboys.
Dallas needs to get pressure with the four down linemen, which has not gone so well the past couple of weeks. Washington has a pretty good offensive line. Here are their scores to date:
Very strong on the left side of the line, with more vulnerability on the right side and maybe just a little up the middle. Since the Redskins have only played four games, I have included the scores for the Broncos line prior to playing the Cowboys, which is also based on four games' work, for comparison.
The numbers, at least, are comparable. If the Cowboys are to get more pressure on the passer this week, it looks like they may have to depend on the ball coming out a bit slower than Manning's speeding bullets.
Here I just want to give a team to team comparison in each of the three groups.
|WAS WR||Play count||PFF Score||Adjusted||DAL WR||Play count||PFF Score|
No real surprises here if you consider the entire season, although for Dallas, you expect to see Williams on the rise.
|WAS TE||Play count||PFF Score||Adjusted||DAL TE||Play count||PFF Score|
The number of TE snaps for Dallas also show that the 12 personnel package has not gotten the use expected. Obviously that was not going to be something the team used as much against the Broncos, but one game is not enough to account for such a retreat from that formation. But if the 11 and 01 sets work as well facing other teams as they did against Denver, there may not be any reason to use the 12 package as much.
|WAS RB||Play count||PFF Score||Adjusted||DAL RB||Play count||PFF Score|
Anyone else feel that Dallas needs to use DeMarco Murray more? Alfred Morris is also seeing his effectiveness reduced by the de-emphasis on the read-option.
I don't really know quite where to begin, because there are only three players on the entire Washington defense that have positive scores. NT Barry Cofield has an impressive 7.1, Ryan Kerrigan has a 1.8, and Brian Orakpo a 3.7. Three other players have scores between -1.0 and 1.0. And the remaining sixteen players are well into the red. London Fletcher is the lowest graded player on the team, with -11.9. The entire secondary has red scores with the exception of one player who has only been in for six snaps. With about eight more he too will go red based on his performance to date.
I don't want to dwell on this because too often the Cowboys have been embarrassed by teams they were supposed to beat. But if the Dallas offense cannot shred this group then we almost have to start wondering about what is going on in their heads.
However, there are a couple of things to beware of. First, the three Redskins who are grading well are also the heart of their pass rush, accounting for 10 of the team's 15 sacks and the majority of the QB hits and hurries. They will test the Cowboys' offensive line. This could easily lead to a different game plan from Bill Callahan using more short, quick passes than against the Broncos. You would also expect the team to give DeMarco Murray more of a chance to run the ball to try and slow down the pass rush.
And DE Jarvis Jenkins will be available after serving his suspension along with LB Rob Jackson. It is hard to say what they will contribute after sitting the first quarter of the season but they are an unknown factor.
PFF has overall scores for the offense, defense and special teams as units. Again, here is a quick table comparing how the two teams stack up, again with an adjusted score for Washington to make the numbers equivalent.
|Redskins||PFF Score||Adjusted||Cowboys||PFF Score|
|Washington Offense||17.1||21.4||Dallas Offense||44.8|
|Washington Defense||-47.0||-58.8||Dallas Defense||0.1|
|Washington Special Teams||-10.1||-12.6||Dallas Special Teams||13.9|
These figures make it look like Dallas should cruise in this game. But numbers alone never tell the entire story.
First, it is a division game and those affairs often do not go according to the book. That in itself is something to give pause. It can't be assumed that this will be as easy as it looks.
Second, numbers can give a snapshot but teams are of course dynamic. The benign score for the Dallas defense shown here does not reflect the way that the D has been collapsing over the past two games. That hopefully will change with Peyton Manning now in the rear view mirror but Washington is surely as eager to attack the weaknesses it sees in Dallas' defense, just as the Cowboys are eager to go after that Redskins secondary. Of course, that works both ways, because if Dallas can keep some of the offensive aggressiveness it had against Denver, it may be putting up a whole bunch of points.
This is going to be an important game for both teams. Whoever wins is in the thick of things in the NFC East race. The loser may be on the outside looking in.